JD over at getrichslowly.org sparked a little controversy with the we-are-Number-One-crowd last week when he posted this chapter from the Story of Stuff. The offence taken certainly indicates how screwed up this whole consumer thing has gotten. For one thing, we are all tied into the process through our economics (social capitalism) and our economy (the free market) and our politics (based in a fear of communism) and our religion (the failure to recogize the atheist in all of us). So any discussion of this kind leads almost inevitably to arguements and anger and dismissal of the original idea which was that we all have too much stuff.
Archive for Culture
GM announced plans at its annual stockholders meeting today for new company strategies designed to “aggressively respond” to this increasing demand for fuel-efficient cars that the North American consumer can afford. The company will be focusing on a series of efforts aimed at cutting costs, eliminating jobs, and limiting its dependency on truck and SUV sales.
Unfortunately, the good comes with some bad. Since it is always about profit, and not very often the workers, nothing in the announcement mentions plans for reeducation, or transitional support for the unemployed thousands as four plants will close by 2010.
Investors cheered the decision, sending the company’s stock up about 2 percent in early trading.
What makes this news a Loser is that this decision smacks of not being about what is right and sustainable for the economy but what self-serves the interests of Wall Street and by extention we the stock holders. Because no matter how you cut it, we are caught up in a web of our own making. We have to consume, we need to make money, we are invested in the very corporations that we know have only self interest at heart.
Contrast that to this kind of story of a Winner from Alex at YBwhoUR? It’s about an inventor named Matt Shumaker and his motor bike. It’s an example of what each and every company should be using as a reason for being. What do people need not what can we sell them.
I think that a long time ago that was the way it must have been. Then came the Mad Men, and the idea that the business of business was making money first and useful products second or even third. Excessiveness meant success. The more you made the more you could sell became the business model. And it worked in two ways. One, to show that we are a successful and abundant country where everyone has a chance to have more and more stuff. Two, to set up a way of producing things that explained why we needed to be powerful enough militarily to enforce ourselves upon the rest of the world when the need arose.
So now, even as we look at the younger generation as the ones who will have to solve this problem, we may be facing, are facing the possibility, that all the excess is about to come back and overwhelm us. Unless, of course, GM is not too late and then, well, . . . ?
It is hard to buy a manufactured product these days that doesn’t come from China or some other sweat shop nation. But that doesn’t mean much when you are out shopping. Normally we buy what we need and take the product at face value. News stories of product defects, of tainted materials used in the manufacturing process, are usually sloughed off by the everyday ordinariness of life. That’s why it took me by surprise when the reality of the danger struck home.
Here’s the situation: T and I had started working out in the pool by swimming laps using kick boards. The weather had turned warm early and we both needed to get back in shape after a winter of stress and strain. I had noticed though that T likes to float around in the pool after a workout while I get out to enjoy the sun. So I went back to the store where we got the kick boards and picked up small size belly board that was small enough for pool use but large enough for her to float on. So much for good intentions. What’s that saying “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Skip forward about two days. T says “Look at this.” She is pointing to a small row of pimples on her right side. “And this.” She turns so I can see a similar breakout across her chest. I can tell from the way she is looking that she thinks this is more of the same weirdness that has happened to her body since the gall bladder surgery in February. In another two days the breakout has spread to the backs of her knees and all across her abdomen. “I don’t understand what could be causing this.” she tells me. “I stopped using any medications over a week ago.” So we go back to the doctor, who prescribes a steroid ointment, and then, either Benadryl or Zyrtec, whichever works since he really doesn’t know what the cause is but sees it as some sort of allergic reaction.
Meanwhile, I am still trying to figure out what could have caused this to happen. Could it be more post surgery body stress? Was it the sunshine, the pool water, the combination of both? It didn’t make sense. Then I looked at the belly board I bought for her to float on. China, tainted lead-based paint, asbestos, flash across my mind and I suddenly realize that the pattern of the breakout actually matched the way she would lay on the board as she floated in the pool. Shit.
“There are generally three types of product liability cases: negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty” say the folks at lawyers.com.
Strict Product Liability
If you can prove that a product is “unreasonably dangerous” – that it has a design or manufacturing defect – then you may be able to establish that the defendant is “strictly liable.” Unlike negligence cases, you may not have to prove the manufacturer knew about the danger, because even if they didn’t, they should have. (One of the main purposes of this provision is to hold manufacturers accountable for developing safe products). You still, however, have to prove that the product caused your damages.
Is this the case? How can I even start to prove it? Yes, the board was made in China, but how do I pursue a product liability case with so many other factors involved? Maybe it wasn’t even mis-manufactured but just made with latex in the processing. She is allergic to that. The lawyer.com site recommends talking to several lawyers, and warns that the whole process of pursuing a claim will be extremely expensive.
No, for now I’m stuck with this. Blogging about it in hopes that the blogosphere might have a response. I’m also going to take this question over to JD’s getrichslowly forum and see what the folks there might suggest.
But first, that was just too easy. Lakers over Spurs and the starters rest for most of the fourth quarter. Hmmm. Seems similar to the Spurs in New Orleans. I’m just saying.
Anyway, perusing the LA Times OpEd page on Friday and came across this item about how the state and the gov think that the best solution to the current budget problem is to float a bond issue against future lotto revenues. Here are a few factoids from the opinion:
- a 1999 national study conducted by Duke University concluded that families making less than $25,000 a year spent roughly $1080 on lottery tickets. 10% of their income.
- Families earning between $50,000 and $100,000 spent only $495. 1% of their income.
- The state of California spent over $93 million the last three years in advertising the lotto.
As the writer, Michelle Steel – BOE member for the 3rd District, points out, “the governor’s plan to pay for the state’s irresponsible spending rests, ironically, on getting Californians to spend more irresponsibly.” I really do love it when things get ironic.
Remember last summer when everyone in the personal finance blogs, well maybe not everyone, was posting about how to save on fuel while driving? Drive slower, plan your trips so that you do more on each one, carpool, use public transportation, and go ahead, ride a bike to work. Remember. Well, one of the tips I remember had to do with going to the pump early in the morning or late in the evening because the day’s heat affects the gas by expanding it. You get less gas more hot air in the middle of the day. Well, yesterday it was reported that “a survey shows that Californians could be overpaying as much as $3.4 million a day as heat makes gas expand.” More irony. You moved to California for the hot weather only to find that the automobile state is costing more to live in because of it.
And then there is this. A long time ago I read a novel by Calder Willingham called Eternal Fire. It was a fine trashy, sexy novel about a sociopath and his love life in the New South. Yes, I read it mostly for the sexy, trashy part. But there is a section the story that chronicles how a court trial is rigged so that an innocent person is besmirched. The scripted actions of the community leaders and the judge has always stuck in my mind and is frequently brought to the fore when I read things like the headline story about the Congress defying Bush by passing the Farm Subsidy Bill or the Military Spending Act. Who are they kidding? Bush who has favored these programs all through his two terms now gets to act all righteous while the bills still get passed and the Congress now run by the Dems gets to seem defiant. Wow! What a script. The bills still get passed though. $630 billion for defense, $10 billion for not growing crops. What’s ironic is that our media actually purports to be covering the real story. Hah!
Attacking the rich, maligning the poor, driving a wedge into the widening gap between the top and the bottom of the workforce, these are the topics of concern in The Trillion Dollar Meltdown’s penultimate chapter.
Chapter Seven: Winners and Losers
It is perhaps apt that this next to last chapter has this title since we have become a nation that lives and dies with the sports metaphor. But just as the sports’ news has been dominated by spectacular betrayals of trust and honor so to has the world of finance. Superstars, yes. Superheroes, no. What has become clear to the outside observer is that the last forty years have led us to a point where the idolization of the rich, and unfortunately their methods, is the major characteristic of our psychology. Winning at any cost, walking away with it all, that is what we idolize. We are number one in our admiration and acceptance of the rich and their apparent right to have it all.
So what if Blackstone guts Travelport of $4 billion while laying off 841workers. We cheer as,
The private equity kings insist that they are management wizards, not financial engineers. But, at least in its most recent phase, the numbers show that the private equity game, like subprime CDOs, is just another arbitrage on cheap money and rising asset markets.
Billion dollar dividends to opportunistic takeover artists are just one wavelet in a long-term, and for many, increasingly dusturbing, tidal shift in American society – a widening disparity of wealth and income not seen since the Gilded Age.
Consider these wins:
- “the top 1percent, or the top centile, who doubled their share of national cash income from 9 percent to 19 percent.
- “the top one-hundreth of 1 percent, of fewer that 15,000 taxpayers, quadrupled their share to 3.6 percent of all taxable income.
- “the average tax return, of those 15,000, reported $26 million of income in 2005, while the take for the entire group was $384 billion.
Seems fair to most conservatives apparently because they still claim that the poor through the government’s entitlement programs, and the middle class through tax-deferred savings, and the elderly’s social security and other retirement plans got more. Only here are the facts of the matter according to Morris:
According to a 1999 Treasury study, 43 percent of the tax benefits from retirement savings programs went to the top tenth of households. 66 percent to the top fifth. and only 12 percent to the lower three-fifths.
Whiners and winners, that’s the net analysis. Didn’t finish school, did your job get automated? Well, that’s your lower class for you. Didn’t understand that subprime mortgage contract, well that’s too bad, isn’t it?
There is no conspiracy against the poor and the middle class. It’s more the inevitable outcome of our current money-driven political system combined with “the disposition to admire, and almost worship, the rich and the powerful,” which Adam Smith fingered as :”the great and most universal cause of corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Meanwhile, consider the drive to privatize. Sallie Mae is an example. Designed to be a government program to assist students in furthering their education has instead become a private company that “was fully privatized in 2004, a year in which it made an astonishing 37 percent after-tax profit.” See, say the free marketeers, that’s what business is all about. When the government ran it, it just helped thousands of student learn their way to success. But when it became a private company, and still retained the aspects of governmental protection from state usury laws, it made money. As a matter of fact, it even spun off a separate SLM business line that racked up $800 million in debt management fees in 2005. Imagine that. The rich, CEO Albert Lord’s compensation package in 2003 was 12.7 million with options by 2005 up to 189 million, get richer. While the poor (students) and the middle class (their parents) incomes stay flat.
We are apparently developing three kinds of services in this country. The service industries that provide jobs for the lower class, the government and industry service which provides jobs for the middle class, and the financial services which provides wealth and leisure and privilege for the upper class. Need proof, just look at Countrywide or Bear Stearns or Cit group or the K Street Project. When they make money they are private and successful models for how to work the free market. When they fail, the government, through the Fed or through pressure of other lenders/banks, bails them out. Socialized capitalism is what we have.
The great consolidations of banking and investment banking into financial mega-players has proliferated armies of mega-income executives Besides driving cash income shares toward the top of the payroll pyramid, it has greatly enhanced the political clout of Wall Street – as evidenced by steady cuts in taxes on capital gains and dividends and the persisitence of absurd tax advantages for private equity funds.
It takes a certain kind of confidence, some would say faith, to believe that we can come out of this cycle with our overall system still intact. Reading about the power of these forces and having watched what has happened even though the Democrats have assumed the political power for now, does not argue for success. Those armies of execs, those walls of money strategies, those free market confidence games are not just going to go away. America, you and I on the bottom may just have to do something about the top.
Next up: Chapter Eight: Recovering the Balance